Dragonriders of Pern Reread

Queer Relationships in Pern: Dragonquest

The first Pern book, Dragonflight, had ended on a hopeful but somewhat tense note, what with the return of the hungry, desperate-to-eat-anything alien Thread; lingering political questions of land ownership; massively dysfunctional relationships in the dragon Weyrs; and, oh, yes, the sudden arrival of a rather large group of time travelers, who claimed they were going to be helpful, but, we all know how well that can go. Like, yay, one massive problem solved—hello, about twenty others.

In Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey started exploring all of those toxicities and issues.

She also started—kinda—exploring some queer relationships.

Well. “Exploring” might not be the correct word.

Dragonquest opens seven Turns after the end of Dragonflight. Robinton, Masterharper of Pern—a character that McCaffrey had introduced at the end of Dragonflight and quickly realized was a find—is trying to write a new song, and struggling. We can all sympathize. He then, in a long rumination about just how brief human memory can be, quickly catches us up on Pern’s current problems, which can be summed up as Everyone On Pern Is Having Social Adjustment Issues—namely, the time travelers aren’t adjusting well to the present day people on Pern, and vice versa.

Just as Robinton’s getting into his composition, he hears the disturbing news through the drums: Thread is falling out of schedule.

Over at Benden Weyr, F’nor seizes the chance to go on an errand to the Smithcrafthall for Manora, primarily because the women are making medicine and he can’t stand the smell. At the Smithcrafthall, he encounters two dragons and their riders: B’naj, rider of brown Seventh of Fort Weyr, and T’reb, rider of green Beth, also of Fort Weyr. Their dragons are very, very ready to have sex, which makes their riders very emotional, to the point where T’reb stabs F’nor in the shoulder with a knife.

That evening, the Weyrleaders hold a meeting to discuss the incident—that is, most of the Weyrleaders. Two of them, R’mart of Telgar and T’kul of High Reaches, fail to show up, in a surprisingly accurate foreshadowing of their roles in the rest of this book. On his way there, F’lar tells us that dragonriders are forbidden to duel, which is pretty rich coming from the guy who dueled a non-dragonrider to the death in the previous book, but I digress. F’lar also gives us a highly misogynistic rundown of the other Weyrwomen, concluding that “This was a matter for men to settle.”

Have you learned nothing at all from your last seven years with Lessa? Bad time to assure us that your relationship with Lessa is going just great.

(The reassurances in the next chapter are, well, more reassuring.)

Anyway. Apart from assuring us that the newly created Southern Weyr already has a promising wine industry going, the meeting does not go well. Fort Weyrleader T’ron insists on blaming everyone except for the person wielding the knife; he is joined by Ista Weyrleader D’ram, convinced that the main issue is that the people of Pern just aren’t grateful enough to dragonriders.

The next morning, F’lar is unpleasantly awoken to Thread falling out of pattern. Annoyingly enough, he and his dragonriders don’t choose to time it—threatening the lush forests below them with destruction. Come on, guys, you have something that can help you save trees! Use that something! After all, as we learned in the last novel, the most that can/will happen is that you’ll find out that you already did it! F’lar pauses to talk to Lord Asgenar, Lord Holder of Lemos, and is unpleasantly surprised to learn that Thread has been falling out of pattern—and thus, not always destroyed by dragons—in several locations. The Lord Holders and some of the Crafts knew. The dragonriders did not.

F’lar heads back to Benden. Lessa has already informed the other Weyrleaders about Thread deciding that schedules are for other people, not hungry alien lifeforms desperate to get more green stuff into their diets. This leads to the second meeting between Weyrleaders in two days—making me wonder a bit about the plotting of this novel, but moving on… This meeting’s no less tense than the first one, partly because, just as the meeting gets started, the dragonriders hear about another disaster: The unexpected Threads have badly injured R’mart of Telgar Weyr, conveniently removing him from the rest of the book and giving readers a few less quarrelsome Weyrleaders to keep track of. Lessa sends help to Telgar Weyr; F’lar and the other Weyrleaders agree to use signal fires and sweepriding to keep track of the changing Threadfall.

Down in Southern Weyr, Kylara, rider of gold queen Prideth, thinks a lot about sex. Like, a lot. And fights with the Weyrleader, T’bor, who is apparently only good in bed when their dragons mate. And she avoids work, letting it all fall on the shoulders of Brekke, a junior Weyrwoman at Southern, currently responsible for nursing F’nor and others back to health. This is not very interesting, so let’s end this section with some definitions:

Drummers: Not stylish or completely stoned rock band drummers, but people trained to send messages through loud, booming drumbeats that can be forwarded to the next inhabited site, also by drums. A communications system would have been tremendously helpful in the last novel, I must note—F’lar even comments in this one that, thanks to a lack of communications systems, people on Pern had to resort to signal fires to let everyone know that, yep: invaded again. That said, having to live in a place where drums boomed like, all the time, would get annoying, to say the least, not to mention disruptive. Robinton finds his creativity drained by a single message; a later scene in Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern brings up some of the other issues with this sort of public yet limited information system.

Oldtimers: The nickname given to the dragonriders who came from 400 years in the past to help save Pern.

Maybe they have a point about feeling unappreciated.

T’ron: The suddenly renamed Weyrleader of Fort Weyr, who has gotten considerably worse since the last book, when he was called T’ton.

T’kul: The even worse Weyrleader of High Reaches Weyr, he never appears “on screen” in this book, but continues to lurk as an unhelpful, unfriendly menace to everyone, when not polluting available water sources.

Delightful dude, really.

R’mart: The Weyrleader of Telgar Weyr, with a convenient habit of getting injured, thus relieving McCaffrey of the need to include him in various scenes.

D’ram, G’narish: The Weyrleaders of Ista and Igen Weyrs. Lacking R’mart’s injury habit, they are forced to stand in for “sympathetic old Oldtimers” (D’ram) and “more flexible, younger Oldtimers” (G’narish).

Southern Weyr: A brand new Weyr set up since the last novel, apparently located in the same place as the previous time travel experience. You would think that everyone would want to avoid the place, given how exhausted and miserable it made most of those riders, but apparently not. Led by T’bor and Kylara, it apparently serves as a joint Hospital for Dragonriders/convenient place to send off all the excess dragons and riders produced by Benden Weyr—which, just seven Turns previously had been desperately short of dragons. Apparently Ramoth and Mnementh have been very busy indeed.

Belt knives: Metal weapons which in Dragonflight were called “swords.” They seem to have a nasty habit of getting their wearers involved in attacks and duels.

Sweepriding: Sending dragons off to fly over land areas in search of trouble—or in this case, unexpected Thread.

Numbweed: A salve made by boiling native plants in large cauldrons; the process of making it is unpleasant, but it works as an instant pain reliever and appears to have some antibiotic qualities. It can also become discolored if the cauldron heating it up cracks.

Once again, a lot to unpack here, especially since this is a section packed with little details—everything from discussing the economic importance of forests and woodworking (this is great) to the introduction of the drummers (this is less great, mitigated only by the novel’s recognition that, hey, this drumming thing? Remarkably ineffective), to an almost offhanded mention of abortion and different cultural attitudes towards abortion on Pern (offhanded or not, this is unusual in science fiction), to the acknowledgement that working as a queen rider can impact a woman’s fertility, to the (again) almost offhanded mention that Ramoth will not tolerate more than two other queens in her Weyr, to the switch from swords in the previous novel to belt knives in this one, to discovering that dragons can incite not just intense sexual feelings in humans, but also violence—giving a rational explanation as to just why dragons and their riders are kept safely in Weyrs away from Holds.

And one completely unanswered question: Is that cauldron of numbweed that set F’nor off on his errand safe to use? Inquiring minds want to know!

What I most like here is the recognition that a happy ending doesn’t always mean, well, a happy ending: Dragonquest takes a harsh look at the “ever after” part, recognizing that the alliances formed at the start of a crisis don’t always last throughout the crisis. Part of the problem here—acknowledged by the Benden Weyrleaders, at least—is that Pern still faces forty more years of a major environmental threat that can only be combated through large, cooperative efforts. If you don’t join in with fighting Thread, you die; or have no wood to burn for heating/cooking in the winter, and also die; or at the very best, spend some very miserable months.

And on the other side, the Oldtimers are understandably completely exhausted. They’ve been physically fighting the same dangerous environmental threat for years, without receiving the gratitude or recognition they think they deserve. Quite apart from other social changes popping up after 400 years (which are perhaps not as extensive as they should be), this exhaustion makes it rather difficult to enjoy a happy ending.

And since I keep speaking of environmental threats, another aspect to be appreciated: the way Dragonquest quietly shifts from a story about the dangers of apathy and misogyny into an explicitly environmental work, reflecting not just the environmental concerns of the 1970s, but also, the political battles surrounding them.

But what I really want to talk about are B’naj and T’reb—aka the first named, canonically gay couple in the Pern books.

Not, to be clear, the first queer people. Dragonflight had clarified that at least some dragonriders indulged in very very gay sex, by noting that:

  1. With the exception of the riders of the golden queen riders, all dragonriders were men.
  2. This included the riders of the female green dragons.
  3. When dragons rose to mate, their two riders would sleep together as well.
  4. Green dragons rise often, mentioned in Dragonflight and confirmed here.
  5. Ergo, lots and lots of gay sex.

Pretty much none of these riders were named in Dragonflight, however, nor were we given any details about their relationships. Dragonquest fills in a few of these blanks. In this book, at least some of these riders—that is, bronze riders, and some of the riders of brown and blue dragons—sleep with women, with some rather dark mentions of dragonriders outright kidnapping “commoner” women and taking them back to the Weyr as unpaid sex partners. And this dialogue:

“If you need some likely prospects for any green dragons, there’s a boy…”

“D’ram follows tradition, Benden,” T’ron cut in. “Weyrbred is best for dragonkind. Particularly for greens.”

This is all mostly meant to illustrate just how tense things are getting between F’lar and T’ron. But that specific reference to “green dragons” instead of “any colors of dragons” suggests that the candidates for green dragons may differ from the candidates for bronze, brown, and blue dragons. That is, they are presumably boys who identify as gay. The added “Weyrbred is best for dragonkind” is mostly a reference to the idea, repeated frequently in this book, that people who live in Weyrs tend to be more sexually open than people who don’t, mostly because Weyrfolk are continually exposed to the emotions of very horny dragons. I’m not sure I buy this, largely because, well, dragons fly when they mate, so presumably Weyrfolk aren’t the only people exposed to this, but it is a plot point later on in this book, so I’ll let it slide for now.

In the meantime, it suggests that people living in the Weyrs accept queerness and queer sexuality, while those outside do not—and that T’ron feels that it’s better for green dragonriders to be men who grew up in that accepting atmosphere, rather than men who may have grown up in homophobic environments. He’s at least not wrong about the possibility of homophobic comments: This same section has a character use the phrase “snivelling boy-lover” as an insult. The words are directed at a straight man, and come from a person McCaffrey expected us to view as a villain (my contrarian view is coming up in a couple of posts) and from a person who grew up in a Hold, not a Weyr. Whether that means that queer characters should be left in the relatively intolerant Holds and Crafts rather than brought to the more tolerant Weyrs… Well. I don’t agree with T’ron on many things, this included.

Anyway, back to B’naj and T’reb, a same-sex couple who have decided to go shopping for belt knives just as their dragons are getting ready to do the thing. It’s not, let’s be honest, an exactly shining introduction: B’naj and T’reb are hostile and dismissive to craftmasters, borderline rude to a strange dragonrider, and that’s before the revelation that they are trying to take a jeweled belt knife, one designed for a Lord Holder. And the encounter ends with T’reb sinking a knife into F’nor’s shoulder, gravely injuring him—though F’nor is more shocked and upset about T’reb’s dragon.

So, yeah. Not exactly the best, let alone heroic, examples of gay characters here—indeed, the focus on jewelry and the overly emotional response from the green rider, plus the clarification that the green rider is several years younger than the blue rider, not to mention the constant mentions of just how many times green dragons want to have sex, come uncomfortably close to some hurtful gay stereotypes.

And Anne McCaffrey would later muddle all of this on two different fronts. One, she later decided that green dragons could be ridden by women, which kinda marred the “gay men make such great dragonriders that green dragons won’t choose anyone else!” thing. And two, when speaking to fans later, she made various comments about queer sexuality that… well. Let’s call them “problematic.” (Others have used the terms “hurtful,” “dead wrong,” and “are you kidding me? She really said that?”)

But still: As a kid just starting to wonder about my own sexuality, finding these dragonriders—dragonriders who slept with people of their own sex and yet were still the most prominent heroes of Pern, who regularly risked their lives to fight Thread, and who got to ride dragons, and telepathic, teleporting dragons at that—was, frankly, amazing. It feels dated now, and I haven’t forgotten all of McCaffrey’s comments. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t give some hope back then.

Mari Ness currently lives rather close to a certain large replica of Hogwarts, which allows her to sample butterbeer on occasion. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Nightmare, Shimmer and assorted other publications—including Tor.com. Her poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, was released in 2017 by Papaveria Press. You can follow her on Twitter @mari_ness.

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